2. Remove your first seedling from its container. Place a finger on either side of the stem of your seeding.
Gently squeeze the sides of the cell or pot, loosening the seedling’s rootball.
The seedling should slide out. Continue to support the rootball and the stem of the seedling. If the rootball is particularly recalcitrant, you can gently tug on the seed leaves of the seedling to get it going. Don’t pull on the stem, it can easily break or pull away from the root ball which will kill your seedling.
3. Take a look at your seedling. Handle it very gently by the root ball. The root system should be visible in the potting mix and should be developed enough to hold the root ball together, but it should not yet take up most of the potting mix, or be so extensive as to wrap around the bottom of the root ball many times.
If the root mass is not yet developed enough to keep the root ball together, slip your seedling back into its original container and let it grow for another week or two. If the soil is almost entirely roots, your plant is likely root-bound and prone to rapid wilting. In this case you will need to gently tease the root mass into a looser, more open mass so that the roots will grow out into new soil instead of staying locked in a tight circle. Something in the middle is just right for transplanting.
4. Prepare your pot. Fill the pot about half-full with potting mix. Dimple the center with 2 fingers, to make a small indentation into which your seedling will sit.
5. Nestle your seedling into the indentation in the potting mix.
6. Hold the seedling steady by the seed leaf and scoop potting mix around one side of the root ball.
Gently move the seedling stem out of the way, and fill the other side of the pot with potting mix.
Continue to stabilize the seedling by holding the seed leaf and fill the pot with potting mix. With leggy brassicas, tomatoes, peppers and cucurbits (squashes and cucumbers) I bury the stem up to the seed leaves with potting mix while transplanting.
7. Give the pot a good rap on the counter to settle the soil, or mist gently with water to settle the seedling into the pot. Top up with additional potting mix if necessary. Return your seedling to under lights, or begin to harden it off for a move to a cold frame, greenhouse or cloche. Remember that it will be a few more weeks before the roots will sufficiently fill the new soil to allow for transplant out to the garden.
Now repeat as necessary. When I’m up-poting quite a few seedlings, I go assembly-line style. I half-fill and dimple 8 or 10 pots at a time, then remove the seedlings from their cells one-by-one, placing them into their new pot as I go. Then I finish filling the pots with soil. In this way I can get through a lot of up-potting quickly. All done!
Sometimes things go wrong! Despite your best efforts, sometimes a stem will break, as shown below. When this happens, congratulate yourself for starting a few more seedlings than you really needed, and don’t beat yourself up as you compost the seedling. Don’t try to save the seedling, it’s really not worth it. In a case like this, I usually pull the potting mix away from the root ball and “recycle” it as fill for another pot.
Sometimes a leaf will break or tear. If it’s a seed leaf, really don’t worry about it; those die off soon after true leaves get up and going anyway, so it’s no loss to the plant. If, as here, one of the plant’s true leaves has broken, the plant will almost certainly recover, but may grow a bit more slowly initially than his un-hurt brothers. In the end he will probably catch up, so keep or toss him based on how many starts you have, how many plants you want to transplant out to the garden, and how much room you have under lights for your seedlings.